By Victoria Vaughan
A NATIONAL University of Singapore (NUS) study which ranked Singapore as the worst environmental offender among 179 countries has drawn a sharp response from the Government, but its authors are standing by it.
The study, jointly done by NUS and the University of Adelaide, found that Singapore's headlong rush into developing a modern megalopolis over the last 30 years had taken a terrible toll on its natural environment.
The Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, however, has slammed the 16-page paper - which looks at relative environmental impact of countries - for not taking into account the 'unique circumstances of each country'.
Responding to queries from The Straits Times, a ministry spokesman said that the study was based on a proportional environmental impact index, which is defined only in terms of total land area.
'As such, countries with limited land size which have high intensity of land use would be necessarily disadvantaged in this proportional index,' said the spokesman.
'Correspondingly, the main indices which contributed to Singapore's poor ranking were contingent on total land area. For example, natural habitat conversion, which is the area of human-modified land divided by total land area, unfairly penalises Singapore's high urban density.'
In response, Professor Corey Bradshaw, 38, director of ecological modelling at the University of Adelaide's Environment Institute and one of the paper's three authors, was adamant that the data spoke for itself.
'We didn't make it up,' he said. 'It's publicly available data so anyone can look at this.'
The study, which took about three years to complete, was published by peer-reviewed online science journal PLoS ONE.
Professor Navjot Sodhi, 48, from the NUS department of biological sciences and co-author of the paper, said Singapore's rapid development in the last 30 years has seen it lose 90 per cent of its forest, 67 per cent of its birds, about 40 per cent of its mammals and 5 per cent of its amphibians and reptiles.
The study is thought to be the first in the world to adopt a new rating system which looks only at environmental indicators such as forest loss, natural habitat conversion, marine captures, carbon emissions and biodiversity.
As the index focuses on modern environmental impact, it 'ignores some elements of historical degradation such as deforestation in Europe', the authors said in the paper. It therefore 'might penalise developing nations more heavily'.
Although a country like Brazil, for example, has chopped down more rain-forests, Singapore, proportional to its size, has wreaked greater destruction as nearly all its forests have made way for urbanisation, explained Prof Bradshaw.
He added: 'Singapore's development over the last 20 to 30 years has meant that it has done the worst damage to its environment.'
Developing and developed nations such as South Korea, Qatar, Kuwait, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and the Netherlands were also penalised by the proportional index.
While Singapore fared poorly in terms of proportional environmental impact, it is too small to figure in terms of global or absolute environmental impact. For that, the 10 worst countries are: Brazil, the United States, China, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, India, Russia, Australia and Peru.
The authors conceded that Singapore was something of an anomaly as it is a city state, and a fairer comparison would be between it and other cities such as New York City and Hong Kong.
The negative rating is not the first Singapore has received in environmental studies.
The Republic has frequently been cited as having one of the highest per capita carbon emissions globally by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), which provides energy statistics to the US government, factoring in data such as carbon emissions from bunker fuel, aviation and refining processes.
Latest EIA data taken in 2006 indicated that Singapore emitted 141 million tonnes of carbon emissions, ranking it as the 33rd-highest emitter of greenhouse gases among 215 countries.
Singapore - which adopts a measurement standard that does not include bunker fuel, aviation and refining emissions, which is in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change guidelines - puts its own carbon emissions figure as 40 million tonnes.
In this year's Environmental Performance Index (EPI), which ranks 163 countries on both environmental public health and ecosystem vitality, Singapore did better, coming in 28th with 69.6 points. Iceland fared the best with a score of 93.5 and Sierra Leone came in last with 32.1.
Speaking to leaders at the Copenhagen climate change conference in December last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong defended Singapore's environmental record, saying it had taken environmental issues seriously since its independence more than 44 years ago.
He said Singapore had recently set a voluntary and domestically funded target to reduce emission growth by 16 per cent from business-as-usual levels by 2020, subject to a globally binding climate change deal.
He described this as 'a substantial commitment which will entail significant economic and social costs'.
This article was first published in The Straits Times